Research Can Add Rich Detail: The British Museum

Left to Right: Montagu House, Townley Gallery and Sir Robert Smirke‘s west wing under construction (July 1828)

My main character works at the British Museum in present day, but finds herself in 1834 London. I thought it would be fun for her to visit the museum while she’s in 1834 to see her reaction.

When I wrote my first draft, I knew I needed to do research on the museum, but waited until I was polishing my third draft. I wondered if the current building was even around in 1834, and sure enough, it wasn’t. But, it was right during the time it was being built. It took some digging to find out which wing was built when, and which was yet open for the public, but I discovered that in 1834, she would be visiting the previous museum’s lodgings, Montagu House. The British Museum’s website has some very helpful history posted. This initial led me to many more on their history, with photos and drawings, and even a history of each wing.

However, I wanted to find what artifacts she’d be seeing. I thought I’d need to write the British Museum and see if they’d be so helpful as to do something like this for a newbie writer. Thankfully, on the off-chance that Google would pull through, I searched online. Would you believe that the British Museum published guides to their artifacts room by room at various times in the 1800s? And they’re posted online? Talk about a writer’s wet dream! They’re available on Google Books. Here’s the one from 1814 and the one from 1838. Using these and other online sources, I was able to form a picture of what she might have seen. I had to draw a map on paper, to figure out some of this, as the photos got confusing.
Anyway, here’s a before and after of the hero and heroine approaching the museum. Notice the lack of detail in the first version. I had no idea what she was “seeing.” (There’s other things lacking, too!). The hero doesn’t know she’s from the future.